Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Liz Lauren.
“Creation is hard work.”
That thought is at the core of How to Catch Creation by Christina Anderson. Whether one is creating a book, a painting, a relationship, or a family, creation takes time, patience, and focus…or perhaps it takes marvelous serendipity. Anderson’s new play, which has its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, explores the intertwining lives of three intellectual/creative couples as they seek creation in their lives. The play takes place in 2014 and 1966 simultaneously, as four modern people try to navigate the rough waters of their lives and a pair of 60s lesbians deals with their own. Nothing comes easily to any of them.
In the past, writer GK Marché (Jasmine Bracey) is working on her early novels, her nonstop, driven work straining her relationship with her lover Natalie (Ayanna Bria Bakari). In 2014, painter Stokes (Bernard Gilbert) comes across a collection of twenty of Marché’s novels at a weak moment in his life: he has just been rejected by his thirteenth MFA program. Hiding from his failure, he buries himself in her books and decides to try his hand at writing himself, to the chagrin of his girlfriend Riley (Maya Venice Prentiss), who seeks answers by consulting the last person to reject him, Tami (Karen Aldridge), the head of a local college’s masters program. Tami, meanwhile, is trying to deal with her newfound attraction to Riley, as well as the creative urges of her best friend, Griffin (Keith Randolph Smith), who, after 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, wants desperately to become a father with or without a partner.
Director Niegel Smith, working on a brilliant and beautiful double-turntable set by Todd Rosenthal, stages all of this in a seamless production with one couple’s lives folding into another’s and time completely blending together. Some scenes and dialogue even occur simultaneously, emphasizing the connections Anderson intends us to see among her carefully drawn characters, all of whom are in one way or another immersed in the difficult act of creation.
All of the actors here are outstanding. Keith Smith’s Griffin is a man who spent his time behind bars reading books (including Marché’s entire collection) instead of getting angry over his circumstances and has emerged a black male feminist who believes that “our collective liberation can be achieved when we eradicate oppression against Black women.” Anderson makes Griffin a remarkably perceptive and interesting character, and Smith’s performance is warm and ingratiating. Even in scenes in which he is getting angry, it’s easy to be on the side of this man whom life has treated so unfairly but who is desperately trying to find his joy.
Griffin and Stokes develop a friendship after meeting in a park, and his friendship with Griffin brings out the best in Stokes. Gilbert is energized as this male bonding develops, and that energy carries over into his scenes with Riley, in which Prentiss’s more flamboyant character is at times in better focus. Riley is a proud woman who has made herself into an excellent computer technician but is sitting in a job in a small repair shop instead of being able to stretch herself. It is Tami who forces her to examine her own loss of creation, signified by having stopped making original beats and remixes. She has a wonderful moment when she recites all of the things that might have stood in her way in life but which she has overcome, but she is allowing life to pigeonhole her. Prentiss imbues her with the kind of raw emotion, fire and complexity that makes you want to know her, but at the same time allows her to explore her own inner conflicts, which she does with Tami’s help.
Aldridge is excellent as Tami; she can register several different emotions at once on her expressive face, and that in turn allows us access to this character who, of all of Anderson’s creations here, has the most emotional depth. Tami may wear her heart on her sleeve at times, but Aldridge makes sure we know that there is a lot more going on within her, and Tami’s journey is a very complicated one. As Griffin tells her, “You rest your heart in the messiest rooms of the most troubled homes.”
The juxtaposition of all of this with the similarly troubled past relationship of Natalie and GK helps to ground this play. Marché’s immense body of work came from a place of pain, and we see that creation can derive from any strong emotion at all, though it is never easy.
A poem by GK Marché that pops up in the second act tells us how difficult it is:
“I write an instructional poem: how to catch creation.
I type the steps: one, two, three, four, and so on.
You glance at the paper, then say to me: there are no instructions here. Only a list
I tell you I know.
It’s a sheet to take notes in case I meet someone who has the answers.”
“The answers” are never going to be provided simply and easily. Creation is an idiosyncratic thing: each act is going to be different from all others. There are no manuals, no easy “how to’s,” no steps to follow that will automatically take you where you want to go. It’s a messy, individual thing, and Anderson’s witty and brilliantly written script has “caught” it perfectly. But sometimes it just comes, defying expectations; when each act ends with a perfect moment of harmony of couple to couple, past to present, we are left pondering the miracle of catching this lightning in a bottle.
How to Catch Creation is now playing at Goodman Theatre, 170 W Dearborn, Chicago, until Feb 24. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.